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Cell phones turn up the interaction

Several carriers let TV viewers interact with shows, but AT&T Wireless says to expect even more possibilities, like sending text messages to Hollywood movies and the radio.

Interactive TV is now just a cell phone text message away.

Several U.S. carriers--including AT&T Wireless, Sprint PCS and Cingular Wireless--now offer very simple forms of the much-hyped concept of letting television viewers interact with the shows they watch. For instance, viewers of Fox Network's "American Idol" can cast votes for their favorite performances using cell phone text messages.

AT&T Wireless this week said it plans to step up both the complexity and reach of what its calls TextTV, the company's effort to create interactive TV services using text messaging.

AT&T Wireless spokeswoman Danielle Perry said to expect more television shows, especially reality shows that can tie in an audience vote, to incorporate text messaging. Radio stations are also interested in new promotions where a listener can send in a text message with song requests, she said.

Expect wireless message services that shuttle photos or voice recordings to come into the mix, she said. "We had great response from Hollywood, both the big screen, the small screen and beyond," she said.

The company did not give any details on when these services would become available.

Interactive TV (ITV) has received lots of interest, but there's been little success for the industry to boast about. And that's not because of a lack of interest; some of the biggest technology companies are working on products. Microsoft, for instance, supplies software for TV stations to offer ITV, and America Online has partnered with U.K.-based ITV software maker BSkyB, a division of British Sky Broadcasting.

But wireless carriers in Europe and the United States say they are having success. AT&T Wireless subscribers cast more than a million text-message votes since the latest season premiere of "American Idol" on Jan. 28, Perry said. About 40 percent of the 2002 World Series viewers responding to Sprint PCS's "virtual coaching" promotion used a cell phone's text message instead of the provided toll-free telephone number.

In Europe, the response has been even greater, likely because text messaging is much more popular there than it is in the United States. A 30-minute German television program generated 1.2 million wireless messages, considered a record for a single show. MTV lets European stations incorporate text-message voting in its popular "Total Request Live" program. New services called "Teletext" prompt teen-agers to send via SMS (Short Message Service) , and watch the message scroll across the bottom of a TV screen.

But questions remain about just how much more a cell phone can offer beyond the simple polling services. It's likely the cell phone's limited processing power will never bring to life the ITV scenarios dreamed up years ago, such as buying a sweater like one worn by a character in the show you're watching, with just a few clicks of the remote. The services, even in the next generation of cell phones will still likely be based on text messaging, IDC wireless analyst Keith Waryas said.

Whether that satisfies the television industry remains to be seen. But wireless carriers are more willing to give it a try than others because they earn between 4 cents and 10 cents for every wireless message that's sent, Waryas said.

"Nobody really ever gets excited when you talk about earning a few pennies at a time, but multiply that by millions and things start to get interesting," he said.